Andean Abyss is the brainchild of Volko Ruhnke that launched the Counter Insurgency (COIN) series in 2012. I like to look at the games we covered in 2010 (Labyrinth: The War on Terror 2001 – ?) and 2011 (A Few Acres of Snow) as part of the same trilogy of innovation that launched the 2010’s. Though only two of those games share the same designer, the zeitgeist of the time suggested to gifted designers, developers, and publishers that conflict simulations were ready for nothing short of its next conflict lens.
A Series Without a Normandy
If I had to guess, the go-to topic for designers and publishers looking to launch a series would probably have something to do with Normandy in 1944. Like Gettysburg, The Battle of the Bulge, Operation Barbarossa, and Waterloo, Normandy is like a shortcut to sales. Andean Abyss, on the other hand, took the road less traveled to arrive at nothing short of a ConSim revolution.
Andean Abyss puts us in the heart of the Narco-Terrorism of Columbia during the 1990’s. This game has all of the players you’ve mostly never heard of including both flavors of Guerilla from the right and left wing, Colombian Narcotics Cartels, and the Colombian government. Though the Narcos series from Netflix would launch in 2015 helping to put faces to the places and people involved from a U.S. DEA perspective, this game was a little out of left field to say the least.
A New Card-Fu
Card Driven Games (CDGs) were the equivalent lens of the 1990s for ConSim designers. In nearly all cases, players still held onto a fistful of cards. This was also true of Ruhnke’s Labyrinth from 2010. Andean Abyss, however, did something completely new by simply having a single card in play for all player factions while previewing the upcoming card to help players make short-term decisions.
Player factions weren’t guaranteed an opportunity to act each game-turn. Understanding how card play worked, and being able to maximize placement on the orders matrix, yet another innovation in Andean Abyss were hallmarks of quality play.
Something Something Flattery
It goes without saying that the past eight years have been COIN-heavy with the series standing at nine volumes and another three are already officially announced.
Without a doubt, COIN is the singularly most emblematic and innovative game system of the 2010s.
You know a game system hits it big when the original designer doesn’t get a credit on a game in that series. That’s exactly what 2016’s Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection from Harold Buchanan did for the series. Liberty or Death was the fifth volume in the series and people had already begun to ask whether people were shoe-horning designs into the system de jour or whether these titles deserved to be a part of the system.
Emphatically, each title has re-affirmed the versatility of both the expert designs we’ve received so far and the ingenious model made available by seeing ConSims through the COIN lens.
Why Does It Work?
I’ve gushed about this series quite a bit already and, like others, believe it to be truly revolutionary. So, just what makes the system so successful?
There are a combination of factors that I believe separate COIN games from the competition and what truly set apart Andean Abyss.
Turning Weaknesses into Strengths
Radically Different Approach
Encapsulation of conflict as more than courage and blood
Weakness to Strength
Change is tough…duh! In debate, we have the Affirmative and the Negative sides of a formal debate. It’s the job of the Affirmative to prove that the status quo doesn’t offer what they are selling. In effect, Andean Abyss had to prove its weaknesses were strengths. These included:
Asymmetrical approach to modeling insurgencies in a commercial ConSim
New card assisted model instead of the traditional card driven model
Shift from two-player to multi-player (remember that more sophisticated bots came later)
Political and combat effects carry near equal weight
If Andean Abyss couldn’t make this affirmative case, then the rest of the series wouldn’t exist. That Ruhnke was able to devise a system that was, without question, lightning in a bottle and sell it to GMT Games was remarkable. Gamer reaction and acceptance was entirely another and on both accounts Andean Abyss succeeded without question.
Radically Different Approach
The professional wargaming world had been participating in matrix games that featured asymmetrical sides for a long time. Brian Train had even brought this approach over to the commercial ConSim world through self-published, print-and-play, and small publisher game titles. It’s not so much that people weren’t aware of these games or even that they couldn’t recognize the instant value in what COIN had on offer.
Instead, the trick was in marketing this to the masses. GMT Games seemed like the perfect fit as a publisher because of their work on Twilight Struggle and then on Labyrinth. Let’s not forget that 1989: Dawn of Freedom ALSO came out in 2012 from GMT Games. Consequently, GMT Games was positioned as a market-leader who had the credibility to take a designer known mostly for Wilderness War and Labyrinth and release something totally fresh.
This meant sourcing oddly shaped wooden pieces, working with manufacturing on embossing those pieces with symbols to represent the now ubiquitous underground vs. active guerilla states. It meant that gamers would have to adopt a new vocabulary that fit this kind of game! Though the Rulebook and Playbook pairing was already in place with GMT Games, the COIN series redefined how they were used and how to “onboard” players with these new jargon and ruleset.
Each approach from concept through manufacturing and player training were critical in the success of Andean Abyss. Let’s not forget that innovative games can die on the vine easily, be received poorly due to typos or playtesting issues because even playtesters had to adapt to the new game and rules. In short, the risk was high, but the rewards were even greater for both Ruhnke and GMT Games.
More Than Courage & Blood
The history of the ConSim hobby is one of showcasing, for the most part, courage and blood. Whether it’s 20th century air combat or 3rd century centurions marching across Europe, the focus has largely been on the courage, audacity, command, supply, and weapon systems of the “con being simmed.”
Andean Abyss, on the other hand, took the approach that counterinsurgencies require a whole new means of thinking about conflict. If gamers accept that to be true, then they must also accept that these conflicts are about more than courage and blood despite both of those things being present in some sense. Just as I said that the affirmative case Volko Ruhnke had to build with Andean Abyss included definitively proving that non-traditional topics could garner widespread support, it also to prove that people would be interested in the core political intent of a counterinsurgency.
If tidy factions exist in counterinsurgencies, then their aim is rarely to gain territory for the sake of conquest. Instead, it’s the gain political capital, control populace, and shape public discourse to try and bend traditional authority to see its point of view. Andean Abyss was trying to do this in a game on a topic that hardly anyone had paid attention to outside of maybe Central and South America let alone had significant familiarity.
There is no doubt in my mind that Andean Abyss’ unlikely (though it’s hard to make that claim from 2020 with the benefit of … drum roll…. 20 20 hindsight…sorry) success bred in designers a new vigor to explore unexplored topics and to branch out in new directions that might be as simple as game components or might be as complex as radically new game play mechanics. It was Andean Abyss that we can point back to as having given birth to this new lens through which designers could view ConSims throughout the 2010s and certainly into the future.